THERE have been significant improvements in workforce safety in the UKCS sector of the oil and gas industry since its inception over 50 years ago. The industry can point to a combination of technical advances, procedural improvements and a maturing safety culture to explain this improvement.
In the UK, we have some of the most sophisticated physical and procedural safety systems available – we have made observation and intervention the norm rather than the exception across the industry. Yet, despite all the technical and behavioural safeguards that we have put in place to protect people, the goal of a working environment where everyone can consistently expect to return home safe and sound remains an elusive one.
Safety systems alone are unlikely to provide the whole answer. While technological advances continue to be made, none of these have proven to be a match for the ingenuity of human beings in discovering new ways of bypassing and over-riding safety systems to get the job done faster.
So, should we rely on the framework of regulations, rules and procedures that we have developed over the years to keep people safe? However well-intentioned, it is doubtful whether the introduction of yet more rules would make the oil and gas industry safer. When accidents happen, the resulting investigation reports all too often reveal that procedures were in place but not followed.
After systems and procedures, we are left with behaviours, in other words the human factors. Human error is frequently identified as some of the root causes of accidents and incidents – allowing our minds to wander, simply missing what is going on around us and doing things out of habit which we haven’t realised are inherently unsafe. Our industry compensates for these human fallibilities to some extent by providing multiple physical and procedural barriers however, both individual and organisational resilience can be enhanced by developing mindfulness in people.
An ancient Buddhist practice, Mindfulness is a very simple concept and one that is extremely relevant for our lives today. It means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. It can simply be noticing what we don’t normally notice, because our heads are too busy in the future or in the past – thinking about what we need to do, or going over what we have done.
Mindfulness can easily be described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention. In the work place, this can equate to a heightened state of awareness of risk and alertness for developing hazards. It can help us understand why we fall victim to mistakes and bad habits and encourage us to practice techniques that enable us to anticipate potential hazards – replacing bad habits with good, developing better attitudes and taking personal responsibility for our own safety and for those around us.
Can we ever defeat the perception that accidents and incidents are unavoidable because of human fallibility? Despite the significant technical and procedural advances that have been made, if we hold the expectation that people will continue to get hurt at work, this expectation is more likely to be met than not. Changing such expectations, shifting attitudes and replacing bad habits with good are long term objectives, not the quick fixes so beloved by our industry.
Perhaps it is time to admit that it is not more rules and regulations that are needed to improve personal safety. Instead, we should look more inwardly to the one thing that has always needed more attention – ourselves.
Allan Dick, FQM Ltd